Local watering holes

December 2, 2002

Think of arak, grappa, red wine, tequila, brandy, whiskey or toddy and the different images or places that these drinks conjure up. Although all can be found in Thailand, if you’re looking for that special indigenous brew, keep your eyes open for the local ‘lao khao’ stall. Rice whiskey (and its variations) is the drink favoured by locals at the end of the day.

If you see a dimly lit bar made out of bamboo filled with locals strumming guitars, a pickup truck that has many different bottles stacked upright in orderly fashion in the back with plastic barstools around it or a small and inconspicuous looking table on the side of the street with rows of whiskey bottles and metal shot glasses on hand, you are likely heading in the right direction.

You can also buy ‘lao khao’ in local stores but you’ll miss out on the experience of hanging out with fellow ‘lao khao’ drinkers and the cheers and shouts of encouragement as your raise your glass up to your lips, probably not for the last time. Stick around long enough and you will realise that many of these bars double as drive-thrus. A motorcyle driver will pull up, put his baht on the table and have a shot of ‘lao khao’ poured. Down the hatch and off he goes.

Calling ‘lao khao’ similar in taste to sake is indeed being too kind. But the Thais solve this problem by taking a piece of cheesecloth, piling herbs, wood sap, dried fruit and/or spices in it, tying it up, and dropping it in a large container of ‘lao khao.’ After it sits for a few days, ‘lao yadong’ is the result. The once almost undrinkable ‘lao khao’ goes down a bit easier due to all of the special ingredients that have gone into it. On top of that, this new brew is now said to possess healing powers and usually given a very far-out sounding name.

‘Lao yadong’ stalls can be spotted by keeping your eyes open for very large and labeled glass jugs with tops (usually red) on them sitting in a row on a bar. You’ll see the cheesecloth still floating. Although bartenders are not likely to tell you what went into making it as it is a trade secret, they will be quick to list the healing properties you can expect if you buy a shot of the appropriate cure. Do you have pre-menstrual cramps? Feel low on energy? Are you impotent? Having fertility problems? Suffering from a headache or poor circulation? The jar labelled Joke 69, Black Superman, Red Spirit, Double Margin, The Horse That Kicked the Door In, Bin Laden Love Course, or Success 007 could offer just the solution for you!

Although these different names offer different cures, they don’t offer a wide variety of tastes. A shot is likely to resemble something between Jagermeister and rubbing alcohol. But as the alcohol percentage is 40 percent or so, after a few it just doesn’t matter anymore and that ‘health problem’ seems to get better and better. One drink will cost 5-15 baht (US$0.13-0.38) so you certainly aren’t going to go broke sampling the whole gamut but you probably aren’t going to be able to walk afterwards, either. Hanging out at one of these local watering stalls inevitably involves having everyone ask you where you come from and how old you are again and again. As the night progresses, it tends to involve group singing and guitar playing as well as cheering when a car, dog, motorcycle, tourist or truck goes by.

‘Lao khao’ has been being distilled in Thailand for thousands of years but in 1974 the Finance Ministry passed a law setting minimum financial investments (US$46,000-912,000) before one could legally produce high percentage alcohol. Since 1988, ‘lao khao’ producers also have the option of registering as a co-operative and obtaining a license, but large minimum financial investments, a production requirement of 30,000 litres per day and environmental zoning rules are a deterrent.

Almost all producers of ‘lao khao’ carry on illegally but you’d never guess it. Well, almost. The watering holes serving the stuff are usually in dimly lit places. The distillers do get arrested and occasionally petition the government to change the laws regarding home-brewing. Shipments of ‘lao khao’ get seized. And policeman can often be found enjoying a shot or two of the stuff right along with everyone else.

When you wake up the next morning cursing yourself, just remember you did it not only for your health but also for the cultural experience. ‘Lao khao’ came on the scene long before Johnnie Walker, Heineken, Long Island iced tea or tourists turned up and it’s not going anywhere.

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